• Key Point. Denominational agencies are not necessarily liable for a pastors acts of sexual harassment on the basis of negligence, invasion of privacy, breach of fiduciary duty, emotional distress, fraud, or clergy malpractice.
A South Carolina court ruled that a denominational agency and one of its officials were not liable on the basis of negligence, invasion of privacy, fiduciary duty, emotional distress, or fraud for a pastors acts of sexual harassment. Three female church members claimed that their pastor sexually harassed and abused them over a period of several months. The district superintendent of a state denominational agency (the “Conference”) learned of the allegations, and asked the three women to appear before a “staff—parish relations committee” of their church. At the meeting each woman was given an opportunity to describe the pastors allegedly inappropriate behavior. The pastor attended this meeting, but the women were not permitted to hear his responses to their complaints. After hearing the accusations against their pastor, the committee gave the pastor a vote of “no confidence” and submitted the charges to the Conference for a full review. The pastor then requested six weeks’ paid vacation followed by a leave of absence, and the committee granted his request. The pastor spoke to the church congregation the following Sunday, and explained he was taking a paid vacation. In advance of this service the pastor telephoned several members of the congregation to gain support in response to the three womens charges. The women later claimed that the tone of the pastors voice as he spoke to the congregation made it appear that he had been falsely charged. The district superintendent visited the church the following two Sundays to explain the pastors leave of absence. He informed the congregation that allegations had been made but did not reveal the true nature of the complaints or that any investigation was being conducted.
The pastor resigned from his denomination before it could review the charges of sexual harassment. The Conference accepted the resignation as a “withdrawal under complaint or charges,” and discontinued its investigation into the womens charges. The Conference later spent $4,000 for training pastors in handling sex abuse allegations and for sending the three women to a “survivors of clergy sexual abuse” retreat. The women later met with the bishop to discuss their disappointment with the handling of their complaints by both the district superintendent and Conference. They assured the Bishop that they did not want to bring a lawsuit against the church, but they wanted the situation resolved. The bishop allegedly assured them that someone would write a letter to the church congregation explaining what really happened between the pastor and the three women, and that the women would have input in the establishment of the sexual ethics policy that was to be presented at the next annual meeting of the Conference. The bishop in fact presented the women with a copy of the proposed policy at the annual meeting and solicited their input. They informed him that the proposed policy was a start but that the Conference “had a long way to go.” The Conference adopted the policy. However, no one ever wrote the church explaining what actually happened between the pastor and the three women. The women later learned that certain ministers in the Conference knew that the pastor had previously acted inappropriately toward women while ministering at another church but “swept it under the rug.”
The women sued the Conference and district superintendent, claiming that they were responsible for the pastors sexual harassment on the basis of negligence, invasion of privacy, breach of fiduciary duty, emotional distress, fraud, and clergy malpractice.
Negligent hiring and negligent supervision
The court ruled that the women were barred by the statute of limitations from suing the Conference for negligent hiring or supervision. Had the women filed their lawsuit earlier, the Conference might have been found liable on the basis of negligent hiring since there was evidence that it was aware of prior incidents of misconduct involving the pastor, but took no action.
Negligence in responding to the womens complaints
The women claimed that the Conference and district superintendent “had a duty to prevent the sexual harassment of its parishioners by a member of the clergy and to help in healing afterward rather than being indifferent.” They insisted that the Conference should be found guilty of negligence for violating this standard. The court disagreed, noting that the women “have cited no precedent and we are aware of none that stands for the proposition a church owes its parishioners a duty of care regarding its handling of their complaints.”
The court concluded that South Carolina does not recognize clergy malpractice as a basis for legal liability.
Invasion of privacy
An invasion of privacy may occur in a number of ways. One way is for a person to publicly disclose private information about another-even though the information is true (and therefore cannot be defamatory)-if the disclosure would be highly offensive and likely to cause serious mental injury to an ordinary person. A second way is to publicly place another person in a “false light.” The women claimed that the Conference and district superintendent committed one or both of these kinds of invasion of privacy by the following actions: (1) They asked the women to appear before a church committee to disclose their accusations; (2) they permitted the pastor to make some final remarks to the congregation, at which time he made it appear that he was being falsely accused; (3) they “acquiesced” in the decision of the staff—parish relations committee to permit the pastor to go on paid vacation after his final service, and this further implied that the womens charges were groundless; and (4) they failed to inform the congregation of the true reason for the pastors resignation.
The court ruled that neither the Conference nor the district superintendent was guilty of invasion of privacy. In concluding that the first type of invasion of privacy (public disclosure of private facts) had not occurred, the court observed:
First, the only “publicizing” of facts concerning the [women] was done by the [women] themselves. [They] communicated their complaints to a small committee of the local church. There is no evidence that either [the Conference or district superintendent] “publicized” [the womens] complaints other than within the official channels of the local church and Conference and to those charged with dealing with such allegations. Further, insofar as [the pastor] was the pastor of the church, allegations of his sexual misconduct were certainly matters of some notoriety within the church community. [Finally] the facts disclosed were of some legitimate public interest, albeit to a limited group. [The women] made their disclosures expecting and intending that both the committee and [Conference] would act on those complaints. [They] therefore intended that their complaints should become public to the limited extent that occurred under these circumstances. [The actions of the Conference and district superintendent] were nothing more than an attempt to further the legitimate interests of all parties involved, including [the women].
With regard to the womens claim that the Conference and district superintendent invaded their privacy by publicly placing them in a “false light,” the court simply noted that no South Carolina case has recognized this theory of liability. And, even if it were to be recognized, neither the Conference nor district superintendent did anything to “give rise to such a claim under these circumstances.”
Breach of fiduciary duty
The court rejected the womens claim that the Conference and district superintendent breached a fiduciary duty. First, it concluded that no fiduciary relationship existed between the women and either the Conference or district superintendent. It noted that the women had no contact with the Conference and their only direct contact with the district superintendent was a single meeting involving one of the women. The court stressed that while the district superintendent received the womens initial accusations, “his mere occupation of the position of superintendent did not create a fiduciary relationship with these [women].” Further, the womens personal expectation that the Conference or district superintendent would “take action” on their complaints did not create a fiduciary relationship: “The steps taken unilaterally by the [women] do not constitute an attempt on their part to establish the relationship alleged, and there is no evidence that [the Conference or district superintendent] accepted or induced any special, fiduciary bond with any of [the women] under these facts in any event.”
The court also concluded that even if a fiduciary relationship did exist, it was not violated since “there is no evidence of a breach of that duty. There is no evidence that [the Conference or district superintendent] acted other than in good faith and with due regard to [the womens] interests.”
Did the actions of the Conference and district superintendent amount to an intentional infliction of emotional distress? No, said the court, since nothing in the actions of the Conference or district superintendent “could be characterized as extreme and outrageous, as exceeding possible bounds of decency, or which might be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
The women claimed that the Conference and district superintendent were guilty of fraud because they fraudulently represented that they would (1) provide counseling to the women to help in the healing and recovery process, and (2) create a policy on sexual harassment for presentation and adoption at an annual meeting of the Conference. The court noted that “[t]here is no evidence that whatever statements were made by church officials were more than representations or promises of future action, which cannot be the basis for a cause of action for fraud. In order to be actionable, the representations must be a statement concerning an existing fact.” Further, the court pointed out that the Conference in fact did make funds available to the women for counseling. The court observed: “It is apparent [the womens] contentions in this regard amount to nothing more than mere disappointment with the level of response of the Conference and [district superintendent]. That disappointment is not legally actionable on any basis, much less fraud.” With regard to the womens claim that the Conference failed to adopt a sexual harassment policy, the court noted that this claim “was completely contradicted by the clear evidence in this case.”
Application. This case illustrates a number of important points: (1) It demonstrates once again the risk that churches and denominational agencies face when they receive allegations of misconduct involving a pastor or other staff member and take no action. As noted above, had the women filed their lawsuit earlier, the Conference might have been found liable on the basis of negligent hiring since there was evidence that it was aware of prior incidents of misconduct involving the pastor, but took no action. (2) The court rejected the womens claim that the Conference could be legally liable for failing to properly handle allegations of sexual harassment. (3) The court noted that the Conference could not be liable on the basis of invasion of privacy for publicly disclosing private facts about the women since the women themselves had revealed the same information. In other words, if church leaders share private facts about a member to others, the member cannot claim that the church has “invaded his privacy” if he previously disclosed the same information himself. Brown v. Pearson, 1997 WL 115857 (S.C. App. 1997). [Invasion of Privacy, Clergy Malpractice, Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligent Selection as a Basis for Liability, Negligent Supervision as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]
© Copyright 1997, 1998 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m66 m40 c0497